Belgian playwright, Tom Lanoye’s Queen Lear has been described as a ‘radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear’. Now translated by Antjie Krog, it’s inviting Baxter Theatre audiences to witness the unravelling of a modern-day dynasty headed by dementia-ridden CEO, Elisabeth Lear (Antoinette Kellerman), in the Marthinus Basson directed Koningin Lear.
Unlike Shakespeare’s Lear, this modern-day matriarchal adaptation sees the ‘kingdom’ being ruled by a Titaness of the international business realm. The gender-swap is pulled through to the introduction of her spoilt sons, eldest Gregory (Neels van Jaarsveld), middle-child Henry (Wilhelm van der Walt), and darling youngest Cornald aka Corneltjie (Edwin van der Walt). Greg and Henry, along with their respective wives, Connie (Anna-mart van der Merwe) and Alma (Rolanda Marais), feign affection for their matriarch and so get their hands on the divided dynasty at the cost of Corneltjie, who, to his own peril, professes to love his mother only as much as required and gets disowned. He then chases his own business dreams in the East thanks to the counsel of Elisabeth’s adviser, Kent (André Roothman), and leaves his mother in the hands of the rest of the power hungry family.
The idea that power corrupts is a cohesive thread that strings together the leitmotifs underlying the sibling rivalry and battle of wills —in a family where everyone thinks they’re the smartest and most important person in the room, such delectable clashes are inevitable. With this premise, the theme of natural order is very prominent and fully explored, along with the added pressure to provide heirs (going beyond Shakespeare’s Lear).
The possibility that Corneltjie is gay is hinted to but never fully explored, which seems a lost opportunity in the professed radical style of the play, as the character’s strong-willed, individualistic and loyal-yet-rebellious nature is not utilised to the degree of Shakespeare’s Cordelia. As the play works up to its tragic end, Corneltjie in fact leaves Cordelia-essence behind and becomes the druggy version of Shakespeare’s Edgar (the son who fears that he has lost all hope of parental reconciliation).
Elisabeth is quite clearly the ruler losing touch with reality, but unlike King Lear she reveals that she is very much driven and oppressed by the memories of trying to live up to her father and grandfather’s expectations and legacy —the dominant male element still very much present. If her younger self could have run away to a simpler life in Paris to escape all her protégé pressures, she would have. Yet, she is also the only character who can claim any cruel interference by the fates, an element judiciously revealed by Antoinette Kellerman. She embraces the troubles of Elisabeth with great skill and walks through her trials with careful consideration as she highlights the emotional depth that seeps through the fading memories. Along with Kellerman, Wilhelm van der Walt and Rolanda Marais similarly impress as they dive into the follies of their characters with spirited determination. Their captivating interactions and measured character development are a pleasure to witness.
The performers all take on their respective roles with great verve, and, although a lengthy play, I did not feel time passing thanks to the impressive delivery of well-timed comedic lines that make the drama feel lighter than it is. Such comedic interludes allow the audience to exhale at all the right moments. Although the performances are delivered with vibrancy and vigour, at the opening night there were some moments when audibility was a challenge. Such technical gremlins don’t impact on one’s ability to follow events if you’re very comfortable with delivery in Afrikaans.
The aesthetic quality and impact of Koningin Lear's design is comparable to that of Basson’s previous Shakespearian adaptation, Macbeth.Slapeloos, though less sombre in style. One expects that the various tech elements will prove impressive to audiences.
In this well-constructed and meticulously directed production I missed the heightened puppet-master-type manipulative undertone of Shakespeare’s good versus evil juxtaposition as found in his Cordelia and Edmund characters. Traditionally these characters feed into the family-driven fray —Edmund’s impact being comparable in purpose to that of Iago in Othello.
In Koningin Lear, the essence of Edmund is arguably sporadically sprinkled through the narrative as embraced by various characters at various times. Though this choice is clearly intentional and to be shown due creative deference, for this reviewer, the absence of a more maleficent element (Edmund-like or otherwise) limits the impact of Koningin Lear to collective squabbles of related narcissists. The ebb and flow of these tiffs and squabbles may prove to prevent some audience members from fully investing in the development and journey of the characters. That being said, it must also be admitted that individual theatre experiences are always subjective: one person may be more susceptible to the nuances encapsulated by such a tale than another.
The fact that I personally would appreciate more of a menacing and manipulative element that takes the play beyond the family feud trope, does not mean that Koningin Lear lacks theatrical flair. Throughout the production I found myself thoroughly amused by the antics of the characters, especially Kellerman’s queenly reactions to Elisabeth’s disappointing off-spring and love-triangle shenanigans. With the latter there’s some juicy diversions from Shakespeare’s Lear, as Kent morphs into the blind Gloucester to reveal some of Elisabeth’s skeletons. We also see the evolution of the traditional Shakespearean fool, here rather represented as the sharp witted and tongued nurse, Aziz (Matthew Stuurman), who reveals himself to be very hands-on in his treatment of Elisabeth, as well as a type of moral medium without anything to gain.
Koningin Lear may not be radical within my understanding of such an adaptation-ideal, but it remains a sleek production with an impressive cast, and I’m sure audiences will embrace and appreciate it for the celebrated performances it brings to Cape Town’s theatre scene.
Go see why Koningin Lear walked away with 8 KKNK Kanna awards, before its Baxter Theatre (and final) run ends on 16 November 2019. Tickets are available online through Webtickets.